MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Syria's ancient capital, Damascus, is looking increasingly prosperous these days. There are several reasons; an economic reform program, high oil prices and more investments from around the Gulf. Another key factor is Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon three years ago. Syria was forced out after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Syrian consumers used to go to Lebanon, to Beirut to shop. But now as NPR's Deborah Amos reports, Syria's government is encouraging Syrians to shop and play at home.
DEBORAH AMOS: Damascus is a boom town. Almost every week, another brand-name coffee shop opens. New hotels are going up. Syrians can now put their money in private banks, billboards in English advertise Italian fashion, and Western goods flood into the capital. Syria, once a strict socialist economy, is changing fast.
Mr. IBRAHIM HAMIDI (Journalist): Like a few years ago, nobody would have imagined Syria to be like this.
AMOS: That's journalist Ibrahim Hamidi. He says after the withdrawal from Lebanon, the government accelerated economic reforms. Everything Syrians used to go to Lebanon to buy is now available at home.
Mr. HAMIDI: If you walk out on the street now, you see very fancy cars, fancy restaurants, young nouveau riche wearing very fancy watches, wearing famous brands.
AMOS: Syria's first modern shopping mall opened last year.
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AMOS: Inside the huge glass and steel structure, a play area for kids is stocked with video games and bumper cars. ATM machines are new in Syria, and the goods here — electronics, clothing, kitchen appliances — are mostly imported.
Analyst Reem Alaf says some Syrians call this the Beirutization of Damascus.
Ms. REEM ALAF (Analyst): Beirut was always the great shopping experience — the capitalist dream that they didn't have. In addition you've got the phenomenon of having over half of the population is under the age of 20. It's a very different generation that is looking for new things that the old Syria was not giving them.
AMOS: Syria is breaking out of the old socialist models says Abdullah Dardari, a vice prime minister. He's the technocrat in charge of transforming the economy.
Mr. ABDULLAH DARDARI (Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs, Syria): This country has changed and this change is irreversible. The wheel is already set in motion.
AMOS: Record oil prices have helped. Investors from the Gulf States, including Iran, have poured money into the country. Despite U.S. sanctions, European trade has increased. Dardari acknowledges the break with neighboring Lebanon played a role too.
Mr. DARDARI: Yes. Before the political problems in Beirut, there was a clear decision. We should no longer push the Syrian affluent society to go to Beirut and consume. They want to consume these products, let them consume them here.
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AMOS: This is one place affluent Syrians go to consume, a rooftop bar in Damascus.
Ms. EVELYN SALOOM (Owner, Z Bar): My name is Evelyn Saloom. I studied in Switzerland. I did hotel management for five years.
AMOS: Saloom opened the Z Bar last summer — with red velvet walls, crystal chandeliers, a very creative bartender. Plus a Facebook page on the web that announces upcoming events.
Saloom modeled her bar on Beirut's most famous watering holes.
Ms. SALOOM: I always thought that why does the young Syrians go and spend their money in Lebanon? Why have to cross borders in order to enjoy a drink and have fun and dance?
AMOS: Syria has gone a long way to prove it doesn't need Lebanon anymore, and that's also new, says Saloom.
Ms. SALOOM: What happened in Lebanon made Syrians improve internally. We have banks, we have insurance companies, English language is now a must. So all that made package of adaptation to the new era that Syria is coming in to.
AMOS: But journalist Ibrahim Hamidi argues, the new era has not reached Syrians stuck in the old economy — for example, those in low-paying government jobs.
Mr. HAMIDI: So Syria ways is changing dramatically, but not for all Syrians. The wealthiest are getting wealthier, poor are getting poorer, the middle class is shrinking.
AMOS: The result of a country rapidly transforming a 40-year history of economic control from the top.
Josh Landis, an American academic who specializes in Syria, says China is Syria's model: Keep a tight lid on political opposition, open the economy and try to manage the growing income gap.
Mr. Josh Landis (American Academic): So the big question for the Syrian government is, can it keep a lid on it? Can they get the trickledown working fast enough so that people don't give up hope, so the rising expectations don't explode in their hands.
AMOS: Deborah Amos, NPR News.
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